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Surviving the 'omnivores and the 'killer store'

17 September 2007

Last week News Review looked at how publishers are reacting to digitalisation. This week will concentrate on how it is affecting bookselling and the outlook for the future.

Last year the UK Bookellers' Association published a report by Martyn Daniels, Brave New World, which was a clarion call to booksellers not to ignore the digital future, but to understand that it is already upon us and they must develop a strategy to deal with it. The report describes search engines such as Google as 'omnivores' and Amazon as a 'killer store' that has already achieved domination of the global book market.

Academic and professional publishers have already migrated online and travel publishers are experimenting with the possibilities. Audio downloads are thought to be reaching a tipping point in terms of volume. But, beyond the growth of Amazon, the real danger for traditional booksellers is that search engines could effectively lock out bookstores by offering publishers paid-for advertising on their search results pages. This would enable publishers to sell direct, as many of them are now gearing up to do. The Internet giants such as Google and Microsoft have even deeper pockets than Amazon and they already dominate the web through their search engines.

Fred Newman of Publishing News says: 'The digital era is here and now, and booksellers who fail to embrace it will find that their role in the high street continues to be eroded.'

Research suggests that heavy book-buyers are not as loyal as booksellers would like to believe and that many use more than one source to purchase their books. A Book Marketing survey, which had 67% heavy book-buyers in its sample, suggested that amongst British book-buyers 93% bought from the chains and three-quarters bought online.

Print on demand in bookshops may be an opportunity for them to deliver what customers want in the future, but at the moment it looks far more likely that the bookselling sector could be cut out altogether.

But there are bright spots in this rather dismal picture. The bookshop, more than most retailers, is part of the local community and does engender loyalty amongst heavy book-buyers and anyone who likes to browse. Search Inside and other versions of the this facility are highly functional but for many book readers they cannot replace a visit to their favourite bookshop, the opportunity to look at the books, author events in the bookshop and the personal relationship they have with that shop. It looks as if this is what booksellers must build on.